5 Best Castles to Visit in Japan
01 March 2023
Castles in Japan are an important part of the country's fascinating history, providing an incredible insight into what life was like throughout the ages. Once fortresses to defend against invaders, these beautiful structures are now an ode to time gone by and will instantly take you back to a land of great battles and brave warriors.
Today, there are about a hundred castles in Japan, but it is thought there used to be as many as 5,000. The ones that do remain are mostly protected UNESCO World Heritage sites, used as museums, or even featured in Hollywood movies like James Bond.
Japan’s castles are more intricately designed than those found in Europe. They have an air of Japanese fairy-tale about them, and if the walls could talk, they would speak of adventures and legends worthy of storybooks. Seeing one or more of Japan’s magnificent castles is a must for anyone wanting to learn more about the country’s rich culture throughout the eras.
History of Castles in Japan
The first Japanese castle is thought to have been built around 10 BC. However, it was in the 15th century that the need for them as a defense grew. During this time, the country was divided into dozens of warring states who built small castles in Japan mostly on mountain tops to protect their land. The most powerful samurai lived in the castles with the next in rank living the next closest and so on.
In the 16th century, Oda Nobunaga reinstated a central government in Japan, and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi brought the country back together after many civil wars. During this time, larger castles were built as a symbol of power, rather than for defense purposes, to be used as military bases, and were occupied by shoguns.
There was more conflict to come though, and in the 19th century, the Meiji government destroyed most of the country’s castles in an attempt to westernize Japan. Only 12 castles built in the Edo period (1603–1867) remain with their original tower (or main keep). These are known as the 12 original castles. They are:
- Bitchū Matsuyama Castle
- Hikone Castle
- Himeji Castle
- Hirosaki Castle
- Inuyama Castle
- Kōchi Castle
- Marugame Castle
- Maruoka Castle
- Matsue Castle
- Matsumoto Castle
- Matsuyama Castle
- Uwajima Castle
Best Castles to Visit in Japan
These are 5 of the best castles in Japan, which we have chosen for either their historical importance or architectural beauty. Read on to find out which castles to add to your Japan bucket list.
Situated in a tactical position along the western approach to Kyoto, Himeji Castle can be visited on a day trip from Kyoto and Osaka. Primarily built as a samurai’s fortress in the 14th century, the UNESCO-listed Himeji Castle is one of the 12 original castles in Japan. Created largely from wood, the soaring white structure includes 83 buildings (making it the biggest castle in Japan) and is known as ‘White Heron Castle’, due to its graceful façade and color. It is widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful castles in Japan too and is frequently seen on Japanese TV shows, as well as in You Only Live Twice with Sean Connery as James Bond. Owing to the age of the castle, visitors are required to take their shoes off to explore the Japanese castle interior.
Best time to visit: This is one of the oldest castles in Japan and one of the most popular, so it draws large crowds. December, January, February, and June are the quietest months, and if you want to avoid queues, go early in the morning or on a weekday.
Who should visit?:Himeji is an easy day trip from Osaka or Kyoto and is a remarkable example of Japanese architecture. If you are visiting Japan with kids, this is a fun activity for you all. Children and adults alike will gaze at its grandeur, even if they have no interest in history. Himeji Castle is surrounded by hills and there are lots of steps inside the building, so it is best for strong walkers.
Located in the mountain city of Matsumoto within the Japanese Alps, Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s most notable structures and is regarded as a National Treasure. It is one of the best-preserved of Japan’s castles. Universally known as the ‘Crow Castle’ because of its dramatic black exterior, Matsumoto is unique in that it was built on flat land, rather than on a hilltop or beside a river. Constructed in the late 16th century, the castle has a remarkable series of moats, gatehouses, and fortified walls.
Best time to visit: Spring is the best time to visit Matsumoto Castle when its 300 cherry blossom trees will be in full bloom. However, fall is also beautiful, when the foliage is orange, and you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps in the distance. The Castle Festival is between mid-October and early November when lots of events, activities, and exhibitions take place.
Who should visit?: Matsumoto Castle is one of the most complete, historic castles in Japan. It has lots of steep wooden steps inside, so it is best for energetic travelers and the stunning gardens are a wonderful place for kids to play. In Matsumoto itself, there is something for everyone, including artists who will love the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum’s art collection and foodies who can have fun during one of Daio Wasabi Farm’s tastings.
Kanazawa Castle is set next to the celebrated Kenrokuen Garden, combining the two makes a fantastic day trip to Kanazawa. The seat of the influential and rich Maeda Clan from 1583 to the end of the Edo period in 1868, Kanazawa Castle burnt down numerous times over the centuries. The last significant fire was in 1881, and since then an ongoing restoration project has brought many of the castle’s structures back to their heyday. Ishikawa-Mon Gate and Sanjikken Nagaya Warehouse are the only two parts of the castle that are original. However, the castle is still very interesting to visit, with a fascinating history and similar to visiting a museum. Because of the modernization, the castle has lifts inside the building, making it more accessible than some of the oldest castles in Japan.
Best time to visit:The two best times to visit Kanazawa are September to mid-November (fall) and March/April/May (spring).
Who should visit?: Kanazawa is a charming city, often disregarded in favor of bigger ones. Branded Little Kyoto, the city is reachable by bullet train from Tokyo in just over 3 hours. Combine a trip to the castle with two nights taking in all the city’s sites, such as:
- Kenrokuen Gardens (one of Japan’s top three gardens)
- The 200-year-old fish market
- Quiet streets dotted with Shinto and Buddhist shrines
- Ancient teahouses
- Historic kilns
Hiroshima Castle was built in 1589 in the center of the city by an important feudal lord and became a seat of considerable power in western Japan. Destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945, the castle has been partly repaired using traditional building methods and materials. The Japanese castle’s interior spans over five floors, offering a bird's-eye view of the city at the top. Plus, there is a museum exhibiting samurai culture, and deep insight into the pre-atomic history of Hiroshima.
Best time to visit: Hiroshima has the best weather in spring and fall, visiting in May or between September and November is perfect. Avoid June to October, when the city is prone to typhoons, while April can get busy when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Who should visit?: Hiroshima is well-placed for a trip to Miyajima for keen hikers and the city itself has a lot to offer foodies. A trip to Hiroshima Castle is most suited to active travelers as there are a lot of steps to get to the top.
Osaka Castle is one of the most famous castles in Japan. Eight stories high and surrounded by a moat, it includes 13 buildings and structures altogether, including several turrets, a tea house, and gates. It has endured many renovations over the years, but the original building dates back to 1583 when it was constructed on the former site of a temple. At that time, it was the biggest castle in Japan and was supposed to be the new center of rule for a unified Japan under the leadership of Toyotomi. However, the castle was destroyed by an attack between 1614 and 1615. Not having much luck, it was then struck by lightning in 1665 and only reconstructed in 1931.
Osaka Castle is notably different from Himeji Castle, which is about 60-90 minutes away from Osaka and is about 150 years older. Himeji is a more authentic example of a traditional Japanese castle, while Osaka Castle is more modern. It is museum-like, with fascinating exhibitions and displays portraying what life as a shogun would have been like. That said, it is an impressive sight, particularly at night when it is lit up theatrically showing off all its beauty, and attracts up to 2.5 million visitors each year.
Best time to visit: The best time to go to Osaka is during spring and fall, but it is worth noting that it can get very busy in May, which is peak tourist season.
Who should visit?: Osaka Castle is a fun half-day trip for families, there are exhibitions and opportunities to dress up, plus explore the gardens. Its recent reconstruction means that the castle has a lift that will take you up to the castle tower, so it is accessible to everyone.
Start Planning Your Trip Today
To book your vacation to Japan, contact one of our Asia Specialists by filling out the inquiry form at the top of the page. For some inspiration, take a glance at our Japan itineraries, which include castles in Japan:
This entry was posted in and tagged Japan.